Brainy PCs on Wheels
Posted by: Steve Hamm on May 10, 2005
Most robots you hear about are welding cars on assembly lines, crawling into volcanoes, or waiting on rich Japanese. Most of them are pretty expensive and not very smart. Now comes the merger of two tiny robot companies that promises to deliver smart robots at affordable prices.
The "brains" in this union are provided by Frontline Robotics, an Ottawa outfit with just 11 employees that has designed Robot Open Control, a robot operating system for collaborative security robots. The "brawn" comes from White Box Robots, which is basically one guy: Thomas Burick, a Pittsburgh inventor. Burick came up with the idea of making tough little mobile robots, called PC-BOTs, mainly out of off-the-shelf PC parts. They even run Windows. Think of them as PCs on wheels. Frontline announced its acquisition of White Box on May 10.
(Here's Burick with some of his bots. Notice the flat-top. Burick says he formerly worked in a half-way house and got tired of having his hair pulled, so he got a buzz cut.)
There are a couple of profound ideas here. Think about it. PC standards helped turn desktop and mobile computing affordable and ubiquitous. Now it could do the same in the robot world. Add collaboration software, which is transforming the human workplace, and you do the same powerful stuff with machines. If Frontline succeeds we could have little bots organized in teams rolling all over the place--guarding airports, nuclear power plants, shopping malls, office buildings, warehouses, and factories. The price per bot: Starting at about $18,000.
Frontline's collaboration software is mind-blowing. The software works in layers. One layer provides the basic system for a single robot moving around and using its sensors to spot worrisome anomalies in its environment. The second layer handles communications between a group of robots. They share information and work together to get their jobs done. For instance, if an intruder is detected in part of a building, all the robots can be programmed in advance to converge there. One robot is in charge, and if that machine is knocked out of action, another in the group will automatically take over. The robots are supplied with thousands of scripts that they select from, based on their duties what's happening around them. "It's highly adaptive decision-making software," says Richard Lepack, CEO of Frontline.
The PC-BOT is like the Volkswagon Beetle of the '50s and '60s. It just gets the job done, and cheaply. Burick has lined up an Asian manufacturer to produce his first production robot--the 914, which was introduced May 10, also. The idea is that customers can order the basic model and adapt it as they like--putting on tracks instead of wheels or lengthening the torso so the robot is taller or can house more sophisticated electronics.
Burick is one of those born inventors. Growing up in rural Latrobe, PA, he was fascinated by the robots on reruns of the old TV series, Lost in Space. "Other kids were making clay ashtrays. I was making clay robots," he says. He's passionate about it even now. Here's his Robotics Manifesto. Download file Here's a blog about White Box.